BBH Labs interview with Marcel Kornblum, Head of Creative Technology, BBH London
Voice is one of the big technological themes of 2017 and with Amazon now claiming that ‘Alexa’s speech is protected by the First Amendment’, it is time to listen in to the conversation around voice.
Bots are already a channel that brands are taking up, so voice seems to be the next logical step. We’re expecting to see voice interfaces in lots of new places, not just Alexa and Siri and Google Home fighting to be the voice controlled service of choice within people’s four walls.
This poses an interesting brand experience design challenge, as brand strategy and technology converge in a very specific field. On the technology side there are many conversations being had about ‘voice tech’, while brand strategists have been discussing a brand’s tone of voice for years. The intersection of these two areas is what interests us most at the moment.
We are currently exploring this area with a number of our clients, and as this is all about conversations, I sat down with our BBH’s Head of Creative Technology, Marcel Kornblum, to discuss the process of designing a brand’s voice and the challenges that we are currently facing.
Labs: Contagious just released an overview on voice interfaces and said that “voice technology is an interesting way of conveying a brand’s personality and it can help foster a more emotional, human-like engagement with consumers.” What are your thoughts on this?
MK: I think there are two distinct challenges in the context of automated assistants: what the bot says, and what the voice it says it with sounds like.
Traditional tone of voice is still a factor in the sense of the choice of words that the brands use to communicate, but the shape of the challenge itself is now different. In the context of bots, the interaction between the brand and the user is much more conversational.
Tone of voice is becoming harder to control. For example, when you make a TV ad, you write a script and the brand has the voice of the brand within that script. In social, you have people who are trained to talk in the right way when they talk from the voice of the brand and that can be conversational, but it’s still up to the individual writing the messages, even though in many cases they speak directly as the brand.
With bots, it’s that conversational side of things except that it’s now all automated, so it’s even tougher to have a distinct voice.
In addition to all that, there is a new challenge which is the actual sound of the voice that says those words.
Labs: So how would you start building a brand’s voice?
MK: There are out of the box frameworks to make a bot, for example to create a new sales channel for your ecommerce site. Microsoft, IBM, Google and Facebook have open frameworks to make a bot and you can configure how the bot responds to things. Most of those solutions will have some generic understanding of conversation.
The risk there is that the conversation becomes generic. Inevitably it’s friendly, helpful and clear but not specific to your brand. It’s expensive to build a model that will be more specific to your brand.
On the voice side of things, there are lots of different aspects to the challenge but essentially the tech landscape around bots has some speech generation frameworks and tools.
These are appropriate for being very flexible and allowing any text being spoken aloud, but in the worst case they sound extremely robotic, like your accessibility assistant on your computer or your sat nav.
That approach is valid because it’s very flexible, quick and cost effective but it doesn’t sound very human, although many companies are making great strides in that area — for example IBM Watson has become much more human.
On the other hand, there are very bespoke solutions that allow the brand to really own the voice itself; many of these come from the media sector rather than the bot frameworks, and as a result may not be very flexible.
Labs: So how do you decide which approach to go for?
MK: If you need to be able to say absolutely anything with the voice, like a free ranging open conversation, you will probably sacrifice a bespoke brand voice for the infinite number of words to be expressed. Like with Alexa, users can say anything and the framework needs to come back with some sort of response, even if it is ‘Sorry I don’t understand that’.
If your application is much more on rails, as in there are specific choices that a user makes, you can go with a more templated approach.
It is a bit of an old-fashioned lo-fi option: essentially it is to record templates and words and drop the words into the template. Much like TFL or Sat-nav does (most of them anyway).
That allows you to have a clearly assembled voice but has personality that an auto-generated voice doesn’t. So it depends what kind of application you want to build.
Labs: Google, Amazon and co are the obvious players in this field but are there other areas where the innovation is coming from?
MK: Interestingly there are more sophisticated options around that are coming from specialist companies from the film or gaming industry who do lots of amazing stuff with voice. One of those is to get a voice actor to do an extremely technical recording of their voice which is phoneme based. So you record every individual ‘oh, ah, uh’ and so on. When you do that enough you can make a generated speech engine that uses that person’s voice, which then sounds much more unique and also offers an infinite choice of words.
Labs: Are there certain types of brands that lend themselves better to be expressed via voice?
MK: I think there are certain types of functionality that lend themselves better for voice than others. Voice recognition is not 100% accurate. The deficit in accuracy is really important. The standard in the industry is 94% but the 6% are infuriating. So 94% of the time everything works well, but 6% of the time it’s unbelievably awful and that is a really significant thing.
Most Alexa owners will probably say that generally they love it, but it’s terrible some of time when it doesn’t recognise things. Accents play a really big part. If you speak English with a foreign accent, recognition is way down.
When Siri gets stuff wrong it’s annoying but it’s just search and there is also a screen to fall back on. When Alexa gets stuff wrong, it’s really infuriating because there is no screen — no fallback — and no getting around it. Alexa for that reason is very command based. Google Home supposedly can be much more conversation based. So if you say a few phrases into your conversation it knows the context of your first phrase. Which makes things more natural.
The models are trained on voices. I think there is a whole other interesting topic here which is that of implicit bias, both in recognition and generation. All the generated voices are all white, they are all Susan and James. That may matter to brands if they use generated voices.
Labs: Are there differences in how to use voice, depending on the channel or platform?
MK: I think it’s much the same as with brands and their content on owned vs. paid platforms. It’s a tradeoff and there are different options available.
For example, on YouTube you put your video there and what you get is lots of people passing by and the algorithm showing it to people who might be interested, and what you give up for it is the context in which that video sits. On your own platform you get to control the whole thing, and you might still use the YouTube player in there.
If you put a voice service on Alexa or Google Home you need to talk to Alexa to get to your service, and Alexa will talk back to you. So as a brand you can provide a custom skill to Alexa, but ultimately it’s Alexa talking with Alexa’s voice.
Your owned platform offers more control but is more expensive in the development and in actually getting people there.
Labs: What is the right context to use a voice interface?
MK: There is a whole environmental thing. It can feel weird talking to your phone in public, especially if people can hear you.
It’s different in the privacy of your own home but then the challenge is multiple users, as these devices are normally shared technology. Microsoft (among others) is working on distinguishing between different people to recognise individual preferences, which is interesting as bots become part of a group conversation.
For example, bots sit on our messaging services and it is becoming normal for them to be part of the conversation. So when we use Slack as a team, there are bots in there too. There is an interesting thing about how bots will become part of our conversation in an offline world via voice and knowing which person is talking and being able to service group conversations in the real world.
Labs: In the movie ‘Her’, a super smart AI operating system gets intimate with her user and interacts with him in the most natural way possible. When we get there, will voice become the main way to interact with brands?
MK: It’s definitely going to be an important one, but I think it will differ according to territory, sector and functionality.
For example, lots of the voice innovation has come from China. China is ahead in uptake of voice interfaces on platforms like Weibo, because a huge part of the population there is not fully literate.
Another factor is that people speak much faster than they write. As voice recognition becomes better, there will definitely be brands speaking with voices because it’s a Marketing and service opportunity.
It’s a really exciting time be experimenting with this stuff.
It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Soho. I am at a cafe, waiting to interview a guy called Lee Porte. We have never met before, but I immediately recognise him. Lee immediately strikes you as as the archetypical geek – long hair, big beard, Mr. Robot T-shirt, an extremely nice guy. He also has a RFID chip implanted in his hand. While this might sound scary and futuristic to some, it seems incredibly normal to him. And it’s the reason I wanted to meet him.
A few weeks prior to our meeting, I attended the FutureFoundation conference Trending 2017 and RFID implants were one of the ‘beyond human’ topics discussed. A short Twitter conversation later, and I got myself an interview with Lee.
Our conversation on that rainy Tuesday afternoon for me, demystified what you might call ‘biohacking’ – a movement that identifies with transhumanist and biopunk ideologies. Implanted RFID chips are not completely new, but the movement is still in its infancy. I wanted to share some of the insights with you, which Lee kindly agreed to. In case you ever wondered how and why to get ‘chipped up’, here’s a quick overview.
“I love playing with cutting edge technology and it doesn’t get more cutting edge than this.”
1) It’s simpler than you think
While you could implant it yourself, it’s easier being done by a piercing studio, or as Lee points out, a friendly vet (it’s pretty much the same thing as getting your cat chipped). It takes about 30 seconds, neatly sitting in the flesh between your thumb and index finger. Apparently you don’t even feel it being in there. It certainly can’t be seen from the outside.
Armed with an XMP tag writer on your phone, you can then easily read and write on your chip via your phone’s NFC. For example, you can write your contact details on there, and use your RFID chip as a business card with your next handshake. While exchanging business cards sounds like an interesting use case, it doesn’t quite convince me yet to chip up my hand. Lee and I discuss if this niche movement might ever become mainstream.
2) You need a killer app
For Lee, working as a system admin at a big data company gives him unique access to certain systems that allow him to experiment with his RFID chip. He programmed it to use as a key to unlock the office doors, which according to him leads to some interesting reactions from visitors who see him magically open doors, Jedi-style.
Replacing door keys certainly is a very practical application. He is still trying to convince his other half to get a chip so that they can get rid of their standard door lock. Apparently she’s not that keen yet, which might be the case with the majority of people. But this may quickly change, the more applications could be written into your hand.
According to Lee, anything you can add a unique identifier against, you can use with your RFID chip. Technically your Oyster card could be replaced but it is down to TFL to give you access to it, which they currently don’t. If a major player like TFL came on board, Lee reckons this could really kick off. Who wouldn’t want an Oyster card they can’t lose?
Contactless payment is another obvious one and technically there’s no reason why you couldn’t link your credit card to your RFID-chipped-hand, allowing you to pay your restaurant bill at your next dinner. While this might freak out your date and waiters alike, we shouldn’t forget that paying with your mobile phone seemed far off a few years ago as well. Technological change and socially accepted behaviour go hand in hand, so to say.
I am getting really intrigued now. This suddenly sounds like a much more viable option. A simple procedure, and you get keys, a credit card and your Oyster card that you can’t lose any more. A killer app for the forgetful.
3) It’s not just about utility
While I am a very practical person, for some people, utility might not be the main draw. Like tattoos and piercings, body modification is becoming more acceptable and for some people this is purely about aesthetic reasons.
‘Firefly tattoos’ are little implants that contain Tritium, a radioactive gas that glows. Again, you can get this stuff via Cyberise.me. It has no functional value, but it is “really quite cool”, as Lee points out. He is considering using them as glowing eyes, as part of a larger tattoo design.
Apparently some people just like the idea of implanting magnets under their skin as well. I can see the appeal of playing Magneto for a day, but any more than this and it might become quite frustrating every time you empty your dishwasher.
4) We are just getting started
Whether it is considered useful or beautiful, the biohacking movement is just getting started. Flexible NFC chips are tested in beta at the moment, giving you a much bigger antenna area which makes it easier to tag, but come also with a bigger operational procedure.
There are obviously other developments beyond RFID chips. Brain computer interfaces seem to be the ultimate goal, getting closer to the Matrix. In the meantime, companies like Grindhouse Wetware, an open source biotechnology startup company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are leading the charge. ‘As a dedicated team working towards a common goal – augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open source technology’ they believe “that with imagination and drive, any of us can feel and touch EMF fields, explore its contours, sense the temperature of objects across a room, navigate a room using a sonar sense, or even connect the body to the Internet – right now. It is that dream above all that drives us to create.”
One of their projects is Circadia, an implantable device that can read biomechanical data and transmit via bluetooth. It can also display messages, warnings, or texts from your Android phone via LEDs through your skin.
This all still seems like sci-fi to me but the conversation with Lee has grounded my view of this futuristic movement in practical reality. And while I can see scenarios of brands experimenting in this space, it might be a bit too early to include any of this stuff into your Marketing plan just yet. Lee suggested biohacked brand ambassadors at events. Sounds like an interesting idea, but as I am not yet convinced to chip up myself, I might not recommend that in my next client meeting.
As I quickly head back through the rain, fiddling with my key card to get back into the office, I wish I could open that door with a quick hand gesture.
Author: Achim Schauerte, Strategy Director BBH London
That is the question that BBH Labs has always asked.
When I walked into the office this morning, I felt a sense of nervousness but also excitement. On Friday a true BBH legend left the building and as @jeremyet mentioned in his farewell post, he handed over the precious keys to this blog. I promised him that we won’t screw it up.
So with my first blog post for BBH Labs, inevitably comes the question: What’s next?
As @melex outlined in her leaving post, BBH Labs had many different iterations over the years – from the original plan of a Marketing skunkworks, to experiment with emerging stuff, developing new agency models, and most of all to learn, publicly and privately. Now it is time for the next iteration.
There are many people here at 60 Kingly Street and across our network, keen to shape the future of BBH Labs, keen to build on the success of the past but also keen to take BBH Labs forward. We want to do some of the same things in the same way, but we are also really keen to do things differently. BBH Labs, at its heart, has also always been about difference. Working in different ways, playing with different ideas and involving different people.
We will continue to explore what happens at the intersection of technology, culture and brands. We want to connect with likeminded people who want to push the boundaries of our industry and we want to continue to test things, to experiment, to fail. We want to continue to share our learnings with you. And we want to bring the learnings from the outside world into 60 Kingly Street.
That is why we also want to make BBH Labs even more open, more collaborative, more participative – internally and externally. And now we want to involve you.
I am a planner by trade, so what better thing to do than to start with some research. I want to invite you, the long-time BBH Labs community, to get involved. What are the things you would love to see from BBH Labs in the future? What are the things you are most interested about? What have been some of your personal highlights over the years? What should we continue doing? What could we do differently?
I know you are out there, so let us know what you think and get in touch. Either here, on Twitter or via E-Mail: email@example.com
Whatever the next iteration of BBH Labs, we will definitely continue to ask what’s next.
Author: Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director, BBH London & Labs
Blogging has been good for us and good to us. Since launching this blog in 2009 we’ve published hundreds of posts, read thousands of comments, engaged in dozens of great conversations and made many new friends. Of course we’ve also been DDoS’d, hacked and spammed, but that’s all part of the rich tapestry of digital life and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
And above the mechanics of blogging, pushing ourselves to write and share our ‘reckonings’ outside the realms of powerpoint and pitch have enabled us to engage with a culture outside the walls of the agency – a rich, exciting world of innovators and instigators, start-ups, pioneers, early adopters and tinkerers. Blogging has helped us learn, process, filter and share and these learnings have been invaluable not just for the individual bloggers, but for the agency as a whole.
But now it’s time to spread our wings and try something new. A few new things in fact. Because today, in late 2015, publishing on the web encompasses a wider, more diverse range of channels than the self-hosted blog and it’s hard to deny that sometime early in the twenty-teens we might have moved past peak-bloggery. There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the days when blogs ruled the web are gone.
So, this week we are launching our latest experiment, a ‘publishing laboratory’ where we’ll explore some of the new platforms and services that have risen over the past six years. We’ll be creating new content for these channels to actively engage with new audiences, to reinvigorate our publishing and to continue learning through reckoning, sharing and doing.
Of course this blog will remain a key pillar of our web presence and activity — we strongly believe that owning and using a corner of the web that is yours (ours!) is a civic duty — and we’ll be cross publishing to the blog as we go along. But from today, and starting here with Medium, expect to see BBH Labs pop up in some different and hopefully unexpected places on the web.
As always, we appreciate your attention and your thoughtful comments. Thanks for coming on the journey with us.
“We are sensation junkies, predisposed to excitement, and if that means danger and death, we are ready for it.”
~ Doris Lessing, ‘Under My Skin’ (part 1 of her autobiography)
Since Labs was founded in 2008, at the end of every year we’ve written a round-up of our favourite memories of the previous 12 months: the people, the products, the posts. And I like to think this has reflected the fact we’ve spent much of the past six years engaged in a sort of happy, virtuous circle of accelerated learning and application; of thinking and doing. Taking everything we’ve learned about the Internet and technology and applying it to client business, for the company we work for, with a generous community around us and even together with our families. And, personally, I was proud of the balance I was striking for a lot of that time. Although who needs work-life balance when you can have the merge, eh?
This year we’re taking a different approach.
When Lessing wrote the sentence above she was describing mid-20th century life, bearing witness to a ‘regret for intense experience’ that was voiced openly in the aftermath of two world wars. She wasn’t referring to Internet culture in the early 21st century, although that was the association that immediately suggested itself when I read the sentence. I’m going to use the fact she makes her assertion in the present tense as my excuse.
Looking back over the past year or two, I’d argue we’ve reached the nadir – or the height, depending on your perspective – of our generation’s sensation junkydom. I say this as someone who has disagreed vehemently with Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier and the rest of the-Internet-is-making-us-shallow gang, smiled blithely through Sherry Turkle’s ‘Alone Together’ (“c’mon, I’m not that bad” I said to my family as I swiftly sent another 5 tweets over lunch) and I have declared my undying love for the joys of the social web, several times, in public.
Certainly by 2012, the point at which this post becomes harder to write, we had started to sense a shift from the visceral burn of excitement, the learning curve we were all on, to something else, something more akin to a collective burden, that – god forbid – we’d helped fuel. At worst, a pressure to overvalue and prioritise what we could call the “‘nesses” truthiness, newsiness and, the king of all things real-time: nowness.
Now, whether you are a journalist questioning the very purpose of your existence when a casually fact-checked Upworthy or BuzzFeed piece beats your thoughtful op-ed hands down again, or the brilliant poet Kate Tempest beautifully and poignantly nailing how it feels as a teenager to have your life documented, duplicated and fetishized over, or a blogger satirically sending up copy-cat millennial marketing, our social status quo is being questioned from multiple perspectives.
Taken to the absolute extreme this year in The Circle, Dave Eggers paints a (fictional) portrait of a totalitarian world where the pursuit of ‘completion’, or total information, is the sole, unrelenting goal. Warning: if you’re mildly paranoid about privacy, this book will push you over the edge. Back in the here and now, Alexis C. Madrigal puts things perfectly in his article, 2013: The Year ‘The Stream’ Crested:
“Nowadays, I think all kinds of people see and feel the tradeoffs of the stream, when they pull their thumbs down at the top of their screens to receive a new updates from their social apps. It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what’s out there is crap… I am not joking when I say: it is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.”
These are not crackpot Luddites frothing at the mouth about the evils of technology or, for that matter, New Age Cassandras prematurely worrying about the End Of The World As We Know It. These are people who have helped conceive the best products and thinking in the corner of the web we traverse daily; people who consistently, visibly and tangibly crank open their minds in the pursuit of making things better.
By the end of 2013 our unease has become a dull roar of disquiet. A palpable sense that the exhilaration we experienced a few years back has passed, to be replaced on a bad day by a mixture of exhaustion and that worst of all things, ennui.
When something is ‘under your skin’ it’s an itch that needs continuously scratching: addictive but never wholly satisfying. And after a while, it’s finally dawns on you that you need to stop doing that and move on. I don’t mean ‘embrace continuous change!’ in a brace-yourselves-through-gritted-teeth-for-more-new-stuff sense, I mean: some things need to stop, in order for new things to start.
So 2014 is going to be different. But it won’t become different on its own: we have to make it so.
At Labs and BBH, we’re taking some steps to balance things out a little. Here are just a few:
1. Valuing both ‘stock’ and ‘flow’.
A master metaphor for media today coined by Robin Sloan back in – jeez! – 2010, also via Madrigal, ‘stock’ is the durable content and behaviour that stands the test of time, whilst ‘flow’ is a continuous feed of updates. Both are modern necessities, but, as the sheer newsiness of nowness deflates (see what I did there), the importance of more contemplative content bubbles back up.
We’re seeing evidence of this in the lovingly created, more durable digital publishing evidenced by the likes of the NYT Magazine’s ‘A Game of Shark & Minnow’, the oft-mentioned Snowfall, the Guardian’s brilliant ‘NSA Decoded’ (for more of this ilk, see this helpful spreadsheet via @neilperkin) and closer to home, the likes of Toshiba and Intel’s Beauty Inside and Complex Media’s The New New for Converse Cons.
2. Looking inward for a while.
This year, we deliberately reduced our external focus and instead designed an end to end New Skills training course for BBH and our clients. At BBH London it began with a #bbhexpo in November and continues with a series of 2 day workshops throughout the first quarter of 2014.
We’ll publish the assets and what we learn here once it’s completed end of Q1 2014.
3. Switching up the leadership of Labs in London.
Agathe Guerrier, or AG to her friends, formally took over the leadership of Labs in London alongside @Jeremyet from me a few months ago. For those of you who don’t know AG, she is the perfect leader for a new phase in Labs’ development: her name translates as ‘the warrior’, yet she is a practicing Yoga teacher and has a Tumblr aptly named ‘Wegan Wednesdays.’ She’s also a peerless Strategy Director & Partner at BBH and the brain behind the New Skills training course above.
4. Taking a lighter, more open source approach to Labs Experiments.
It isn’t all about depth, contemplation and stopping to smell the flowers. Historically at Labs we’ve tried, failed and sometimes succeeded at lots of different approaches to experimentation: amongst other things, crowdsourcing our own logo, attempting to reinvent street newspapers, providing a useful catch-up web app and also an entertaining little service that displays your social data as a personalised robot unique to you. A lot of the above took blood, sweat and tears carefully collected in our downtime. In 2014, we’re deliberately adopting a lighter, more open source approach to experimentation instead, opening up the Lab and its resources beyond the core Labs team. More on this from Jeremy and AG in the New Year.
5. Less, but Better.
More individual time spent on fewer clients. It’s not radical but it is profound. We hope it will help everyone regain a sense of equilibrium and clarity of focus, making our work better along the way.
Finally, what about the intense experience Doris Lessing reminded us of, the thing we long for, despite ourselves? Patently, it doesn’t go away. It’s simply about a concerted effort to get some balance back. In 2014 there will still be flow: of course there will be a multitude of memes, ideas and products that catch fire and light up the Internet for a day or two. But I’d wager we will recognise that we need both durable stock and the adrenaline rush of flow in our lives.
Perhaps the most ‘now’ thing we can choose to do next year is to do this: remember to take stock.
A huge thank you to everyone who’s written, shared, commented and generally made the BBH Labs world go round this year. And a particular thank you for the thoughtful writing, links and provocation that have directly fed this post (whether they knew it or not) to the following people inside and outside BBH: Agathe Guerrier, Jeremy Ettinghausen, Adam Powers, Yuri Kang, Chris Meachin, Alex Matthews, Simon Robertson, Nick Fell, Tim Jones, Jim Carroll, Tom Uglow, Ben Malbon, Tim Malbon, Neil Perkin, John Willshire, Amelia Torode, Anjali Ramachandran, Pats McDonald, Alexis C. Madrigal, Nathan Jurgenson, Saneel Radia, Len Kendall, James Mitchell, Ben Fennell, Charlie Rudd, David Spencer, Jon Peppiatt, Sarah Pollard, Heather Alderson, Kate Roberts, Dan Hauck, Kirsty Saddler, Jonathan Bottomley, Ben Shaw, Helen Lawrence, Sarah Watson, Olivia Chalk, Dav Karbassioun, Tim Nolan and last but very definitely not least, Jason Gonsalves.
For a more straightforward look back at some of the themes of 2013:
– Maria Popova’s excellent ‘The Best of Brainpickings 2013’
And for more on looking forward to 2014:
As a product of the first dotcom boom in the mid-nineties I have always been digitally minded. I found my way to advertising through a decade of working in some of the finest interactive studios. More so than ever those two worlds have collided. Earlier this year I set out to write a book that took some of that learning and the mindset of working as a creative in a digital world.
The format of the book took on the look and feel a children’s book for learning the alphabet, with each letter referencing a way of thinking or an insight into the modern creative process. The book was lovingly illustrated by 26 of the industry’s best, and to introduced the book, I asked a simple question of five of advertising’s top creative minds. What does it mean to be a contemporary creative in today’s modern world of advertising? Below are three of the responses I received, the remaining responses can be found by reading the book itself.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” What does it mean to be a creative these days? It’s almost impossible to answer this. The tasks of a creative are unrecognisable from as little as five years ago. You must decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Certainly the days of easy three week shoots in the Caribbean are long gone. But when has an advertising creative ever had the chance to make a physical product from scratch? To really make something? Some would argue clients have never been more conservative but some guy just fell from space for a can of pop with no guarantee that his brains wouldn’t splatter across a million screens. It seems it’s wise to be foolish. One thing a creative does need to be is a hustler. There are no easy briefs any more. You have to fight for the crazy stuff. But I honestly believe in a more uniform and conservative world weird stands out, weird – like ‘Greed’ – works. Look at GaGa. When the going gets weird the weird turn pro. Is that what we are, professional weirdos? I can live with that. – James Cooper
“Creativity” is a loaded word – like “war” or “god” or “child.” It has a lot in common with these words too – for it’s a mix of heavy burden and a blinding belief in our own potential to invent. “Creative” is too often reserved for people who are quirky, strange, tattooed and/or mustachioed. But in truth, everyone is creative with the way they solve the needs of the contemporary world – be they juggling numbers, whittling a good spear, or even in the conjuring of creative design and advertising. What we’re talking about here is indeed creativity in the visual, interactive and social-psychological senses. The Contemporary Creative has the ability to excite all of these with ease, telling stories and inciting action. Those before us molded clay, steel, and wood, but we flex our power with pixels and clicks, flash frames and light, code strings and sensors. We are manipulators – hopefully for good. The one trick pony creative no longer exists; instant death comes to those with narrow-minds, parochial interests or inflexibility. Inquisitiveness, fearlessness and an insatiable thirst for The New are the only real mandates for today’s creative minds. So feed your inner child. Create something from nothing. It’s a war of the senses. – David Schwarz
You can’t be of your time creatively if you’re behind in how you can express it. Nice sound bite, that. And like most sound bites, half true, half full of shit. Why it’s half shit: you can be and do whatever you want creatively. There is absolutely no right or wrong, just expression or no expression. That’s the goddamn beauty of it. Why it’s half true? If you want to have an impact, to have other people see or hear or experience your creativity, it’s a good idea to understand the times you’re living in, the mediums and formats are resonating with people – and understand the tools are available to bring your expressions to life. Know those, and all that creativity inside has a chance to be seen, experienced, and shared. Which makes you a creative person of your time, a ‘contemporary creative’ so to speak. – John Patroulis
The printed version of the book is set to be released on June 6th, however in the spirit of the open Web, I have published the book in it’s entirety as a tumblr blog. You can scroll through it contents at this url: abcbook.tumblr.com
Having spent nearly a decade as a judge, panelist, or an attendee at SXSW I have witnessed massive sweeping changes in the size, scope, and tone of this festival.
My earliest experiences at South by Southwest were fueled by conversations with futurists, digital pioneers, and creative folks exploring a new medium. The festival was small, unknown, and very personal. It stayed that way, and became the annual vehicle for meeting up with the community in real life. It was where we could hear what everyone was thinking, doing, and more importantly what they were feeling. It was about those people and how they were helping shape the Web.
A few short years later the advertising agencies began to take note of SXSW and began attending in force. The first wave was of course the recruiters, hungry for “Digital Talent”. The next wave was comprised of creative, planners, strategists, and account people. There were agency parties, panels, and booths. The festival became too large to curate by a group of people who for the last few years were all on a first name basis. Enter the “Panel Picker”.
There is of course something admirable to be said about allowing the public to decide upon the content of next year’s festival, however the “public” had shifted from this group of connected people helping to shape the Web to a network of agencies, corporations, top-tier brands, and holding corps. This without doubt, was going to impact the tone of the festival. And it did.
SXSW panel content began to drift away from personal reflections of the past year and projections of the years to come. They became a platform for agencies and brands to build a presence within the interactive community. A large percentage of the conversations became pitches and the passionate thinking about the future went silent.
This year felt different. There was a visible shift. This year there was another generation emerging from within the festival. The maker’s movement had arrived and they took on many forms. Elon Musk gave an extremely illuminating talk. There were 3D scanners and printers that created our century’s first glimpse at the idea of teleportation. There were also production shops like Deep Local best know for Nike’s Chalk bot talking about the path of his company from Punk Rock to CEO. There was definitely a something new in the air. The festival subconsciously rebooted and began focusing on the future again.
“No one wants PCs” – Bruce Sterling
This year during Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks, he made clear the circle of life in technology. For every innovation and advancement we embrace, the previous piece of technology it replaces dies. He explained the importance of recognizing and owning that. Bruce also went on to talk about focusing on the people behind the tech, and the importance of the thinkers and makers vs. the end product. It was during this talk that made the turning point evident. We need to embrace the idea of making, but making in such a way that we were aware of what we are replacing. The only constants in the equation are the individuals behind the advancements.
The festival left me thinking that next year would mark a return to that original “futurist spirit”. Sure there will be a huge brand presence, but the content, the core of the SXSW will once again be about the future through the lens of technology and more importantly through the voices of those leading the charge.
Since the days of yore , according to a tradition the origin of which has been long forgotten [Ben Malbon started it] we’ve used the last post of the year to look back over the previous 12 months of bloggery, not in a spirit of wistful nostalgia but in a spirit of enquiry. We look to see what our preoccupations were, what topics or technologies regularly bubbled to the the surface, what themes emerged from what has, like all the other years, been a hectic hurtle down the marketing superhighway.
This is also an opportunity for us to say thank you – for reading, for commenting, for debating, for sharing, for writing on our blog and letting us write on yours. This blog isn’t our personal journalling site – openness and transparency are key Labs’ tenets – and every contribution you all make adds value, helping all of us think harder and smarter. Gracias.
So below, in no particular order are the posts that to us seem to represent nodes of thinking or at the very least, nodes of writing activity. In an astonishing breach of protocol, this year we’re going to present them by theme – enjoy, comment, disagree and share, and see you in 2013.
Mel, Jeremy, Saneel, Tim and Griffin
The uproar regarding the changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service – and continued debate about how web services treat users and the content they upload – demonstrates that discussions about openness and control are only going to get more empassioned as more users are exposed to the fact that, if they’re not paying for a service, they are the product being sold. Openness has featured regularly in Labs posts, and we debated this subject with some vigour at SXSW in our SkyNet Vs Mad Max talk, co-authored with our friend Tom Uglow (at Google Creative Lab, Sydney). Clients are also appreciating that openness can be as much of an asset as a quality – The Guardian making it the key reason to believe in the award winning Three Little Pigs. And James Mitchell used this blog to consider ‘truthiness‘ in marketing, the tightrope joining reality and hyperbole that we walk whenever we try to tell a story about a brand. As James writes, balance is not always easy to maintain.
In the year that BBH turned 30 it’s perhaps not surprising that emphasising difference, subverting the norm and, yes, zagging, have been undercurrents on the blog. BBH Asia Pacific Chairman Chas Wrigley (together with Wieden & Kennedy’s Rob Campbell) offered a series of provocations and debunked some flawed notions in their ‘Everything we Know is Wrong‘ presentation – we were particularly struck with their observations on West knowing best. Then, in a series of posts entitled ‘Advertising is Dead: Long Live Advertising‘ Mel made a few predictions about where advertising might be headed over the next 8 years. Check back in 2020 to see how she did. Subversion also produced some startling work this year as highlighted in this smart piece of engagement thinking for Refuge, the domestic abuse charity. Expecting to see the latest installment of her hugely popular make-up video tutorial, Lauren Luke’s audience were instead shown advice on how to cover up the signs of domestic violence – massive impact created through subversion of expectation, a brave performance and a riveting piece of film.
Great to see experiments coming from around the globe this year. The BBH Barn team in Singapore tackled social media overload with their Social Rehab programme and kit while in New York the Labs team created While You Were Off, a service which kept track of the all important updates that you might miss during those darned inconvenient minutes or hours of Internet downtime. More seriously (and controversially), SXSW saw the launch of Homeless Hotspots, an experimental programme in partnership with a large Austin homeless shelter to see whether street newspaper vending could be updated to be more digitally focussed. After an admittedly rocky start it’s great to see how the issues that the experiment raised might lead to some transformative change as we follow our ongoing attempt to drive innovation for Street Newspapers across the globe.
It’s always a pleasure to get a note from BBH London Chairman Jim Carroll with a new draft post in it and in a particularly rich year for Jim’s elegant reflections it has been hard to shortlist a selection for this round-up. But if you don’t have time to go back and read them all here are a couple we particularly loved. In Laughing Together, Weeping Alone Jim suggests that we underestimate introverts at our peril – in a world that can’t stop talking (and sharing), perhaps its the unspoken, unshared feelings that are most true. In Swimming in the Shallow End Jim raises a toast to modest ambitions, incidental victories and frivolity – not every brand should aspire to sup with sages and kings. Lastly, in this farewell post, Labs’ strategist James Mitchell neatly articulated what for him (and many of us) BBH Labs offers – a place to wander, discover and build.
And so we end this round-up, with Robots. For us, as for Brad Pitt and Chanel No 5, it was inevitable. First announced in April, Robotify.me was finally birthed this month. We’ve learned a lot on the way – about process, about MVP, about delivering (yes, ‘shipping is everything’), about APIs, about facets of our social media activity that we were not aware of previously. We continue to learn from the excellent feedback we’re receiving and will continue to evolve Robotify.me in the new year. But if there’s one conclusion that we can draw from the experiment so far it is this: you can learn through listening, you can learn from sharing, you can learn from reading, but there’s no learning like the learning you get from doing.
See you all again in 2013.
As you hopefully recall from our last update, we’ve been working with StreetWise, the street paper of Chicago, to apply our learnings from Homeless Hotspots. StreetWise’s issues felt most appropriate to tackle not only because of the organization’s innovative mindset (see their recent launch of Neighbor Carts), but because solutions that work at scale in Chicago can likely work in most other cities. StreetWise is a member of both the North American Street Newspaper Association and the International Network of Street Papers, organizations that cover the majority of street papers across the world and ensure the best ideas at any single paper scale.
One of the first issues we’ve tackled together is digitizing the transaction. As of this week, people can use their mobile device to PayPal money to participating StreetWise vendors in a public beta. Similar to Homeless Hotspots, a visit to the vendor’s unique short URL will provide their personal story. This was a critical step in the process, as street newspapers play a much bigger role than employment for homeless individuals; they offer a chance for meaningful connection across socio-economic boundaries. Assuming a successful beta, the program will rollout across Chicago in January.
Street papers are the most valuable tool homeless populations currently have to step out of invisibility. We see the digitization of that process as a critical first step (as do a number of other street papers we’ve been talking to– they’re testing everything from QR codes to mobile issues). However, there’s a long way to go. It’s why our other ongoing project with StreetWise will involve piloting a more fundamental evolution of their offering. It’s a big undertaking, but hopefully it sets the stage for a new model, scalable across large cities around the world. The premise behind the idea is rooted in our learnings from Homeless Hotspots. As always, we’ll keep everyone posted on progress once the pilot has been completed.
We’d also like to give a special thanks to PayPal Labs. They’ve worked with us to create a custom offering to ensure mobile payments are seamless, secure, and free to the vendors to use. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with them.
As always, feel free to reach out with questions or comments. We don’t edit our blog comments unless they contain offensive language.